As fashion retail sales decrease in the United States during the recession triggered by pandemic lockdowns, “brick and mortar” stores have closed and some longstanding department stores have declared bankruptcy. We might be forgiven for wondering: Is this the end of fashion as we knew it? But such a question presumes that “fashion,” as a cultural and economic institution, is only determined by market forces, capital, and sales. What has been remarkable is how COVID-19 has created a time for reflection on those values that has brought attention to fashion’s existence beyond the market, and particularly its relationship to people—especially women—and their everyday lives.
If we might be witnessing a new beginning for this industry, it is one which imagines fashion not as a thing but as a collective consciousness, which acknowledges fashion’s emotional and psychological functions, its capacity to engage with people, and its periodic capacity to value instinct and intuition over the rationality of the commercial bottom line. This has been borne out by some responses to COVID-19 by fashion professionals, many of which indicate the potential for a more responsible and caring role for fashion going forward—which would be based on human need, rather than simply want and desire, and would be recentered around greater leadership by women. Two initiatives come especially to mind: Fashion Girls for Humanity’s Gowns for Good Made in America and Eileen Fisher’s Women Together.
Fashion Girls for Humanity (FGFH) is a charitable nonprofit organization created in the wake of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster. It was founded by four female fashion industry leaders in New York: Julie Gilhart (a longstanding board member of Parsons School of Design), Kikka Hanazawa, Miki Higasa, and Tomoko Ogura. Its mission is to bring humanitarian services and funds to communities in need through its global network of fashion and design industry professionals. A fashion sample sale at the Bowery Hotel in 2012 raised over $275,000 in one weekend to fund the building of a new community center in Fukushima, Japan.
In the current crisis FGFH has responded again, this time by addressing the severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the United States, and in New York in particular. When isolation gowns and even the information to produce them was unavailable, they acquired a gown, took it apart, and circulated the pattern on their website. In less than three months, this local initiative became global. More than 100,000 people from 155 countries on every continent downloaded mask and gown patterns and learned to make PPE from tutorials on YouTube.
As a communication channel, the FGFH website has proved essential for sharing all sorts of related information, including hospital contacts. Mobilizing local production was at the root of the COVID-19 response worldwide. FGFH’s Gowns for Good Made in America has partnered with TheRealReal, and worked with Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney alongside the NYC Manufacturers Coalition, Care+Wear, and Fashion for the Frontlines (co-chaired by Parsons Board Chair Kay Unger), in order to produce cloth gowns and masks in New York, simultaneously supporting the PPE initiative and providing employment for women in the city’s moribund Garment District.
Fashion has even had something to offer in response to the major issue of isolation during the pandemic, which has strained our emotions. Many women have been able to develop support and establish a collective consciousness through fashion, even as the majority of us remain at home, dressing for comfort in tracksuits or pajamas. How we dress at home has provided a second opportunity to build on preexisting commitments by entrepreneurs who create communities of fashion.
In recent months, Eileen Fisher, the eponymous U.S. women’s clothing brand established over thirty-five years ago to provide an alternative to the traditional corporate look, has built on its commitment to the environment, human rights, and initiatives for women and girls. Last year, they established their Women Together initiative, a series of workshops, speaking engagements and video livestreams aimed at empowering women to find their voices and connect with one another. During the pandemic, this program has accelerated. Online seminars have been held once or twice weekly, enabling women to listen to speakers on health and wellness and to engage with one another in small breakout groups. Each session has attracted hundreds of participants from across the United States, as well as from other countries. Participants have expressed gratitude for the modest opportunity of being able to create community with other women stuck inside their own homes, many juggling high-pressure jobs and childcare. As company founder and CEO Eileen Fisher observed, “a collective energy emerges when women connect with other women.”
In the wake of the pandemic, will we learn to take the social and cultural potential of fashion more seriously, particularly in how it can respond to local crises and create supportive communities? Can “fashion” become a rallying cry for the caring and community that has emerged in its name over the past few months, acknowledging the need for greater leadership and participation by women? I think it can.
This has certainly been true for politics. The most effective direction during the pandemic has come from the female leaders in countries such as New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Iceland, and Taiwan. An article in Forbes even explored the question, “Why Do Women Make Such Good Leaders During COVID-19?” The writer, Cami Anderson, a five-time chief executive herself and current leader of ThirdWay Solutions, concluded that women have unique leadership skills, including “negotiating for the common good,” which typically go unnoticed in male-dominated boardrooms.
So, if the pandemic can sanction a new beginning for fashion, let it respect and mirror the roles that women—both fashion professionals and the rest of us—play elsewhere. These times have demonstrated how women can develop and promote a collective consciousness that values fashion’s emotional role and its potential for humanity and care over profit margins and greed. Let’s hope that this can take fashion, as an industry and as a community, into the future.
Hazel Clark is Professor of Design Studies and Fashion Studies at The New School’s Parsons School of Design.